Both of my parents died suddenly while they were still leading active lives. I never had to think about elder care or nursing homes. It was not until a friend of mine asked me to accompany him on a visit to some assisted-living and nursing home facilities that I began to understand the dilemma that families experience when they are facing the reality of caring for a loved one who cannot take care of himself. Children want to do the right thing, but decisions are often made not by considering what’s best but by what is affordable.
There is a scene in Marvin’s Room, a serious drama with lots of comic relief, which captures this dilemma. Two daughters, opposite in temperament, are visiting a senior care facility for their father who has been “dying for the past twenty years,” and who now needs full-time attention. One sister, Bessie, has been caring for Marvin, her father, for the past 17 years, even since he had his first stroke. The other sister, Lee, has been absent all those years, and even now does not want to make a personal sacrifice for her ailing father. She fears that her future will be compromised and states unequivocally: “In a few months, I’ll have my cosmetology degree. My life is just coming together; I’m not going to give it all up, now!”
What brings the sisters together after so many years in the sad news that Bessie has leukemia and may not be able to care for her father any longer. Bessie contacts Lee, who has two boys, and asks her to come with her kids so that they all can be tested as potential bone marrow donors. They may be able to save her life; and as a consequence, Bessie can continue to care for their father. If Bessie dies, the responsibility will fall to Lee. That possible scenario is the catalyst for their visit to the elder care facility.
Complicating factors is Lee’s oldest son, Hank, who has been in a mental institution after deliberately burning down their house in a act of rebellion against his mother whom he hates and who he feels was the cause of the split between his parents. Hank idealizes an absentee and abusive father who he barely knew and his mother feels the brunt of this anger. Family dysfunction abounds.
Marvin’s Room gives us a window into the world of families faced with awesome decisions. It exposes the raw nerves of a family, both challenged and confused by an inevitable future. The film depicts two points of view, one very dark and one optimistic, suggesting that confronting the mortality of a loved one can be a stimulus for reinventing one’s life and reordering life’s priorities. In fact, Lee and Hank finally undergo an epiphany in which they understand that living fully means giving to others, not just being concerned about one’s own needs.
The Talmud tells us that it is better to visit the house of mourning than the house of feasting because the lessons learned there are so profound and so meaningful for purposeful living. Moreover, the Bible exalts the commandment of honoring parents, which is defined in books of Jewish law as providing for the needs of parents, especially when they get older and cannot take care of themselves. This includes feeding them, clothing them, escorting them, and respecting them. Marvin’s Room provides a textbook case of varied responses to a life problem facing many, and in its own idiosyncratic way recommends that love trumps all. Family endures when children and parents care for one another.